Growing a Love of Gardens and Green Spaces

October 10, 2014

Growing a Love of Gardens and Green Spaces

Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature and art. Designed to capture significant amounts of rainfall, Space to Grow schoolyards have the added benefit of protecting the environment and reducing flooding. Construction began in July at four pilot schools and the schoolyards are scheduled for completion this fall. Space to Grow is made possible by the leadership and generous financial support of Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

At Leland Elementary in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, the school’s new Space to Grow schoolyard means more nature, more of the time. Leland’s new garden plans sprang from a deep desire to incorporate outdoor activities into classroom lessons.

“Teachers really want to take their students outside,” says Jamie Zaplatosch of Openlands, who spearheaded the planning process to ensure that the schoolyard design was driven by the vision of the school and community. “We were able to focus staff discussions on what they wanted to see in the garden and what they wanted to expose their students to.”

Leland’s redesigned schoolyard will be one for playing and for learning. The finished product will include playmounds, a half-court basketball court, jogging track and new playground equipment. There will also be an outdoor classroom seating area, and a variety of gardens including a rain garden, a butterfly garden with native plants, and learning garden beds for vegetable growing.

Teachers are especially enthusiastic about leading nature walks. As a STEM school (a school that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math), it’s easy to envision science lessons infused with the plants in their own backyard. And the kids themselves? “They’re most excited about attracting butterflies and insects,” Zaplatosch says.

This abiding passion for nature is shared by the school’s principal, Dr. Loretta Brown-Lawrence. “We think that this is a wonderful opportunity for our school, for our students, our staff and our community at large,” she says. “I love gardening, and I can’t wait to put my hands in the garden.”

Plus, students’ lifelong love of fruits and veggies can take root in the garden, too. Dr. Brown-Lawrence says: “The edible plants will provide our community with more nutritious things to eat and to take care of.”

Nutrition education is a critical component of the schoolyard, as is keeping kids and community members active in fun and engaging ways. “The goal of the schoolyard is to be fun and educational,” says Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign. “When the students are gardening, they’re also learning about where their food comes from and how it grows. And when they’re playing on the playground equipment or shooting baskets, they’re getting in their daily exercise.”

The first plants in the ground this fall will be greens and grasses, but future harvests could include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, kale, sunflowers, spinach and more. Dr. Brown-Lawrence notes that the school is located in a “food desert” — making the garden’s bounty and its inherent nutrition lessons all the more important. Parent volunteers will play a large role in keeping up the garden during the summer and on weekends. She says: “Hopefully it will inspire parents to do some of that [gardening] in their own backyards.”

Parents aren’t the only ones with a stake in the garden. The school plans to assign part of the garden to each grade level, meaning that students can tend their class’s plot from seed to harvest, an experience designed to spark even more enthusiasm for fresh produce.

On October 25, HSC and Openlands will host a community planting day and ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open Leland’s new Space to Grow schoolyard to school and community members, and students’ anticipation is growing. Dr. Brown-Lawrence says: “They can’t wait. We’re all excited to go out and do some planting in the yard.”

Be part of the transformation: Volunteer to help plant Leland’s new schoolyard!